“The people of Patchogue are just now enjoying a sensation at the expense of Alvin Oaksmith and his wife. On Monday he assaulted her in a most brutal manner, beating her about the head and face and inflicting such injuries as to cause her physician to fear for the safety of one of her eyes. For some days previous the poor woman had not been permitted to leave the house of her mother-in-law where she had been subjected to “the most heartless cruelties.” She made her escape about midnight by the assistance of a servant girl, and made her way to the house of a friend where she is at present stopping. Alvin was arrested and tried before Justice Price and a jury, who fined him $50, and placed him under bonds to keep the peace.” (1)
So the Eaton sisters and Delphina violently clashed as well. A January 25, 1871 Brooklyn Eagle article reports that Julia Eaton on Patchogue was indicted last March for assault and battery of Delfina Oaksmith.
I really don’t understand how EOS could have defended her son’s violence toward Delfina. On one hand, I wonder, maybe Delphina was a psycho? Then I think the doctor’s comments confirm that her injuries were not imagined. I looked in EOS’s autobiographical notes to try and figure out what was going on here and why she would not defend a battered woman when she had, her whole life, been an advocate for women’s rights.
I put this question out there in the Universe, and what came back to me was a timeless lesson in family dynamics. This week all of my assignments for work (I’m a reporter) were related to local history. One of them involved the social prejudices of the area at the turn of the century and estrangements within a family that resulted in four children becoming orphans. This assignment shed light on my own research of EOS, which was unrelated in every other way. In all families and friendships, there are misunderstandings and hurt feelings that can fester because of pride or miscommunication, until the family unit is broken. Some breaks are messier than others. In the case of Alvin and Delphina it was particularly ugly. I hate to say it, but the media does not paint a pleasant picture of Alvin and there is no excuse for abuse in my mind. However, I come from a more liberal time.
The New York Times reports in an article dated February 3, 1873 that a divorce without alimony was granted to Delphina Oaksmith from Alvin Oaksmith. It seems that she left the children with the husband, but that might have been the law at that time, plus, she had no financial support for those 6 children. Here is an account of an incident that occurred involving the green house in 1874:
“On Monday of last week Alvin went to New York, and, during his absence, she went to the house to see her sick child, (eighteen months old), and found it locked into a bed-room. She took it away, and the next day went to the house to find every door locked. She climbed in through the window. At the top of the stairs she was met by one of the old maids, who tried to throw her down the stairs. In the struggle both fell. The old maid shrieked “Murder!” and ran for old Mrs. Oakes Smith. By this time Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith had secured another of her children and escaped to a neighbor’s house. She then procured a warrant for the arrest of the old maid, but before the warrant could be executed the mother-in-law had carried the latter to the L. I. Railroad, and she escaped to New York. Alvin, on his return, tried to have his wife arrested, but Justice Smith would not interfere. Thereupon the infatuated husband traveled 10 miles to Manor and procured a warrant. On this warrant it was that Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith was arrested, and her worthy lord’s mother and the old maids having appeared to prosecute her, is why Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith was bound to the peace.” (2)
I struggle with the media’s suggestion that EOS was a mean woman. I don’t believe that she was. In her autobiographical notes she alludes to family problems and suggests that her sons should never have married “foreigners.” However, she blames herself for introducing them into social circles that ultimately shaped their future in business and romance.
“Italians, Spaniards, Cubans were amongst our guests … I indirectly fostered the spirit of enterprise in my sons, naturally an ingredient in their compositions.” EOS explains that her sons escorted her to social gatherings because Seba Smith would not attend them. (4)
It looks like EOS suffered very much emotionally at the end of her life, and leaving the city for the small town of Patchogue was hardly an escape from gossip and social scorn. The whole picture is not here in the old newspaper clippings and it is interesting to think of what may be left out. I think EOS’s autobiographical notes paint the clearest image of who she was- or who she tried to be. Newspaper criticism affected her; stories regarding her family hurt her deeply. However, what she found most painful was not what the Horace Greelys of the world wrote about her professional or personal life. The most difficult thing to face was the reality of strained personal relationships. Here is an excerpt from her autobiographical notes:
“While I write these words this 30th of March 1885, I plainly see that I have suffered foolishly about much, that one of stronger make would have disregarded. I see that I have been cast upon the hard bones of the world armorless and bleeding, with no clear perception that the lack of high civilization will always rejoice in torturing the earnest-hearted, differing from the accepted standard. Now I see that these were honorable wounds face to the foe, and have really entered less deeply into me than the domestic, every day torture that a woman may be subjected to by unsympathetic relations.”(4)
1- Long Islander (Huntington) Feb. 4, 1870 “Outrageous Conduct of a Husband”
2- South Side Signal (Babylon) March 28, 1874 “The Troubles of Mrs. Alvin Oaksmith”
3- Women’s Rights Milestones in NY. Brooklyn Eagle, August 25, 1915.
4- Kirkland, Leigh, Ph.D. “A Human Life: Being the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith” A critical edition and introduction (263, 266, 310)